The battle of bodies and minds between Tibetan priests and the Chinese authorities appears to be taking an increasingly violent and deadly toll after two protesters were shot and wounded by police and a young Buddhist nun burned herself to death.
Reports from inside Tibet say 20-year-old Tenzin Wangmo, a member of the Mamae Dechen Choekhorling nunnery, doused herself in petrol, chanted slogans and then set herself alight on Monday afternoon. She died at the scene.
The young woman is the ninth Tibetan to have set themselves alight this year in protest at Chinese policies in the region and the first woman to have done so. Seven of the nine have been monks from Kirti monastery in Ngaba county, located just a couple of miles from Tenzin Wangmo’s nunnery. Up to four are believed to have died.
“In this area there is a very bad situation. This is the only way they feel they can send a message,” said Lobsang Choedak, who is based at one of the Kirti monastery’s sister establishments in Dharamsala, northern India. “I am scared [what will happen] if the government does not stop what it is doing. I’m really scared about how many people will die.”
Observers say the flurry of immolations is linked to harsh tactics being employed by the Chinese authorities at Kirti, which has long been a site of vociferous protests against Beijing. Reports suggest the authorities have made it largely impossible for the monks to go about their normal religious lives. Thousands of monks have been dispatched home to their villages and others have been forced to undergo so-called “patriotic re-education” classes.
One former monk, who lives in China, said: “Those monks are not doing anything against Buddhism by self-immolation. In Buddhism, one person cannot give up for their own reasons, but it is a good thing if a person gives up his or her life for many lives. Their actions look like suicide, but they died for many other people’s lives and freedoms, because they are not allowed to attack and kill anyone else.”
He added: “For solving the problem with this regime, it’s not about the death of one or two people. This is self-immolation as part of a great pattern.”
The Chinese response to Tibetan dissent has been swift and harsh since the March 2008 riots in Lhasa, the administrative capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. On Sunday, Chinese police shot and injured two Tibetan protesters in south western China.
China insists that it represents the rule of law in Tibet and the only public response to the self-immolations has been to jail those assisting the monks in their acts of self-burning. A Chinese court sentenced Tsering Tenzin to 13 years and Tenchum to 10 years, for assisting in the death of a 16-year-old colleague, Lobsang Phuntsog, who lit himself on fire in March. The court claimed the two monks had been part of a group who prevented the authorities from taking the young monk to hospital. This account of events has been strongly contested.
The sheer number of self-immolations will make it difficult for the Communist Party to ignore, and by adding nuns to the equation, the humanitarian impact is even higher among the Tibetans. Chinese media is tightly controlled by the Communist Party, and the succession of self-immolations has made no impact on the mainstream outlets and all other sources of information have been deleted, including blog entries and commentaries.
“The unrest in Tibet is escalating and widening. The number and frequency of self-immolations is unprecedented,” said Stephanie Brigden, of the campaign group Free Tibet. “Information from Tibet suggests there are more who are willing to give their lives determined to draw global attention to the persistent and brutal violations Tibetans suffer under Chinese occupation.”
Officials in Dharamsala, which has been the home of the exiled Tibetan government since the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet in 1959, said the Nobel laureate would today preside over a large prayer service to mourn those who have taken their lives by immolation.